Paul Hedges on Crossing Religious Borders

By John Reeve

In a recent webinar from Asian Civilisations Museum Singapore [ACM] Dr Paul Hedges discussed interreligious encounters in the museum. Dr Hedges is Associate Professor in the Interreligious Relations in Plural Societies Programme, RSIS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His two latest books are the acclaimed Understanding Religion: Theories and Methods for Studying Religiously Diverse Societies (California University Press, 2021) and Religious Hatred: Prejudice, Islamophobia, and Antisemitism in Global Context (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021). The webinar can be viewed here.

Hedges pointed out that most cultures didn’t have words for religion until relatively recently, and often western translations of ‘religion’ don’t capture the full meaning of dharma in Sanskrit or deen in Arabic for example. The Japanese invented a word for religion after contact with the Portuguese and this was adopted in China, zongjiao.

Especially in somewhere like Singapore, clearer western distinctions between religions, and between sacred and secular, don’t apply:

We may go to view Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, or Islamic art and artefacts in museums, perhaps each found in its own distinct section. However, art – like the religious worlds it depicts – does not exist in monolithic silos. We can see in an image of Jesus or a statue of Buddha a global dialogue of worldviews and cultures

His examples included a Buddhist Amitabha embedded in a cross made after 1945; the shared worship of Guanyin; versions of the divine mother and son from ancient Egypt, Christianity and Hinduism; and also the extraordinary story of St Josephat, legendary Christian martyr based on the life of the Buddha.

His talk emphasised the interreligious connections in the ACM collection and elsewhere, expressing syncretic flows and hybrid creations, and recommended this approach as a step towards decolonising the human religious imagination. He summed this up as ‘strategic religious participation in a sacred religious landscape.’

This certainly fits with my more limited experience of Asian religions. Accompanied by my Thai minder through Bangkok, on our way to a museum training course, I noticed she crossed herself by a church, left an offering at a Buddhist shrine and popped briefly into another temple. When asked about this, she said ‘You never know which is best- I call it ‘my just in case religion’.’

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